Bhatia Falsely Says Governors Back Medicaid Equality For Puerto Rico… Bhatia Plans Aid To Communities In States… Serrano Wins Census Funds For Puerto Rico -- To Bhatia’s Surprise… Senate Committee Rejects Water System Aid For Puerto Rico… Gutierrez Top Late Filer Of Interest Group Travel Reports… $130 Million To Be Spent On Cleaning Vieques Range

June 10, 2005
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Bhatia Falsely Says Governors Back Medicaid Equality for Puerto Rico

The head of the Government of Puerto Rico’s offices in the States Thursday issued a news release that falsely claimed that the National Governors Association (NGA) had endorsed federal funding for Medicaid in Puerto Rico equal to the funding in the States.

Medicaid is a joint program between the federal government and the States and the territories that provides health care for low-income individuals. Puerto Rico is funded less equally by the federal government in Medicaid than in almost any other federal funding program. The federal government contributes 50-83% of the cost of State Medicaid programs, with the higher percentages in States with a higher proportion of low-income individuals and with no limits on the dollar amount of the federal contribution. In territories, the federal government contributes limited amounts and not more than 50%. The cap on the contribution to Puerto Rico is $219.6 million, which provides about 18% of the cost Puerto Rico’s Medicaid program - - a program that provides less services than are provided in the States. The contribution is .1% of national Medicaid spending, although Puerto Rico has four percent of the nation’s low-income population -- a high proportion as its share of the national population as a whole is only 1.3%. According to Puerto Rico Governor Anibal Acevedo Vila ("commonwealth" party/D), the contribution provides $20 per month per program participant versus the $330 per month per participant on average in the States.

Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration (PRFAA) Director Eduardo Bhatia’s news release claimed that NGA Chairman Mark Warner (D), the governor of Virginia, and Vice Chairman Mike Huckabee (R), the governor of Arkansas, had endorsed "parity" for Puerto Rico in testimony Wednesday to the U.S. Senate Committee on Finance and the House of Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce. In fact, however, the governors only called for "development of a pathway that moves to a rebalancing" of the relative federal and Commonwealth government shares in funding the program -- extremely unspecific language that also applied to the U.S.’ four other territories.

Bhatia’s claim that the governors had supported equal funding for Puerto Rico was one of three false statements that he and Acevedo, his boss, made on the issue - - Bhatia in his news release and Acevedo in written submissions to the congressional committees.

Another false statement by Bhatia was that the supposed equality endorsement by Warner and Huckabee was "historic" and unprecedented. In fact, however, the NGA has previously supported increased federal funding for Medicaid in the territories including Puerto Rico.

Acevedo’s testimony wrongly said that "Congress has never reviewed the cap in terms of healthcare or fiscal policy." In fact, the cap on the federal contribution in Puerto Rico has been reviewed several times. One of the reviews -- insisted upon in 1997 by then President Bill Clinton -- increased the cap $30 million but rejected Clinton’s proposal for a further increase of $40 million. Another review provided for the cap to be increased annually for increased health care costs.

According to a former federal official who has worked on the issue, the large cost of equal funding is the primary reason that it has not been agreed to for Puerto Rico. Another reason is that Puerto Ricans contribute almost nothing to the cost since the federal government does not tax local income in the territory.

The statements by Acevedo and his fellow governors came as the Congress is considering a fiscal year 2006 budget proposal from President George W. Bush to limit Medicaid funding in the States and as the Bush Administration is seeking to work out a compromise on the issue with governors and the Congress. A compromise that includes limits on federal Medicaid spending in the States -- if it is reached -- might provide the best opportunity for increasing the territories caps.

The cap in Puerto Rico may also be reconsidered after the Congress’ Government Accountability Office submits a requested report to the Senate Finance Committee on federal tax and social program issues concerning Puerto Rico. The report is to compare Puerto Rico’s treatment in social programs including Medicaid with the treatment of the States.

Bhatia Plans Aid to Communities in States

The main priority of the Government of Puerto Rico’s offices in the States during Governor Acevedo’s administration will be assistance to local communities in the States, PRFAA Director Bhatia also announced this past week.

Bhatia said that the 12 offices around the country other than the Washington, DC headquarters will focus on education, economic development, and development of community leaders in their local areas.

The plan to have the offices supplement the work of the State and local governments of the communities generally continues an approach developed by Puerto Rico’s last governor, Sila Calderon ("commonwealth"/no national party).

One difference, however, is the emphasis on developing community leaders. It will substitute for Calderon’s $12 million campaign to register residents of the States to vote in the States.

The local government activities of the offices have been questioned by Puerto Rico Senate President Kenneth McClintock (statehood/D) because the offices are paid for by Puerto Rico taxpayers and because the Commonwealth government is having a hard time meeting the territory’s own public service needs. PRFAA has a $9 million a year budget.

In addition to focusing on providing services to residents of the States, the offices will also work for the benefit of Puerto Rico, according to Bhatia. Projects include marketing Puerto Rican products to people of Puerto Rican heritage, encouraging students of Puerto Rican heritage to attend the University of Puerto Rico, and organizing residents of the States to support federal assistance measures for the territory, such as an increase in Medicaid funding.

Among changes that Bhatia has made to PRFAA’s operations is a significant expansion of its headquarters public relations office. The office now has at least seven press staffers - - more than double the number during the Calderon Administration.

The new press aides are helping Bhatia raise his public profile. The PRFAA director, who served one term in Puerto Rico’s Senate before losing the past two elections for mayor of San Juan, is considered a likely candidate to be Puerto Rico’s resident commissioner in the States in the next election even though he has tried to suggest that he is not thinking about a candidacy now.

Serrano Wins Census Funds for Puerto Rico -- to Bhatia’s Surprise

The House of Representatives late Thursday approved a bill that would provide more than $3.25 million to collect on an on-going basis census data in Puerto Rico currently collected only once a decade.

In a report made public this week, the House Committee on Appropriations also encouraged the Census Bureau to include Puerto Ricans in its national population reports.

The measures were due to the efforts of committee member Jose Serrano (D-NY), who was born in the territory.

The report explains the bill, which would provide funding for science programs, the Commerce, Justice, and State Departments, and other federal agencies for the federal fiscal year beginning October 1st.

The provisions concerning the Census Bureau and Puerto Rico came as a surprise to PRFAA Director Bhatia - - who issued a news release Tuesday regarding other parts of the report relating to the territory. Bhatia’s release failed to note the Census provisions, which were the provisions of the bill and report of the greatest importance to Puerto Rico. A substantial amount of federal funding is based on Census reports.

The report on the bill also includes Serrano-sponsored language encouraging the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to continue assisting environmental cleanup efforts on the island of Vieques, PR related to the former U.S. Navy facilities there.

The Committee additionally encouraged NOAA to incorporate the Puerto Rico Seismic Network of the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) in Mayaquez, PR in a tsunami warning network being developed for the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico.

Funding in the bill would also provide money to continue NOAA’s coral reef preservation program in Puerto Rico and other places. $500,000 for the program in Puerto Rico is being spent in collaboration with UPR.

The Census Bureau and NOAA are parts of the Department of Commerce.

The report also encouraged the Department of Justice’s COPS office to grant funds for law enforcement equipment to the municipal police forces in Fajardo and San Sebastian, PR.

Senate Committee Rejects Water System Aid for Puerto Rico

The Senate Appropriations Committee this week disclosed it had rejected a Bush Administration proposal for a special $4 million grant to the Commonwealth government for health-related improvements to the San Juan, PR metropolitan area drinking water system.

The committee’s action is the latest reversal for one of President Bush’s few initiatives for the territory. The initiative would provide a total of $8 million for the water system through the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The action came as the committee approved fiscal year 2006 funding for the Department of the Interior and other federal environmental agencies.

President Bush initially proposed the funding in fiscal year 2004, which began on October 1st 2003. After the proposal was rejected by the Congress in 2003, the EPA proposed a grant of half of the $8 million in fiscal year 2005, a proposal that was approved by the Congress last year.

The second contribution of $4 million was approved by the House of Representatives last month. This means that the $4 million could still be approved in final congressional action on the spending bill.

Another provision of the bill relating to Puerto Rico would permit the Forest Service to pay for costs of educating the children of its employees in the territory. The measure was precipitated by the closure of the Department of Defense’s former school at the Roosevelt Roads Naval Station in Fajardo, which was also closed. The base’s closure related to the closure of the Navy’s target range centered on Vieques.

Gutierrez Top Late Filer of Interest Group Travel Reports

A member of Congress with close ties to Puerto Rico has filed more late reports on travel paid for by interest groups than any other member of Congress, according to information released Monday by PoliticalMoneyLine.

The nonpartisan group revealed that Representative Luis Gutierrez (D-IL) last month reported 23 trips taken since 2000, including five to Puerto Rico. The trips cost approximately $70,000.

Members of Congress are required to publicly disclose travel and other expenses paid for by non-governmental sources. There has been a flurry of late filings recently in the wake of scrutiny of travel by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX) paid for by a controversial lobbyist.

Gutierrez, whose parents were originally from Puerto Rico, has been one of the "commonwealth" party’s closest allies in the House. Two of his non-governmental trips to Puerto Rico were paid for by a labor union that has a top officer with a similar relationship to the "commonwealth" party. Dennis Rivera, who was born in Puerto Rico, is a vice president of the Services Employees International Union and heads its largest local organization. He is also influential in New York and national Democratic Party politics and has used his power base to promote Puerto Rico "commonwealth" party goals.

Thursday, PoliticalMoneyLine also revealed that Gutierrez is one of 17 House Members who have not yet filed required disclosure reports on their personal finances during 2004.

$130 Million to Be Spent on Cleaning Vieques Range

The Defense Department has estimated that it will spend more than $130 million to clean former Navy property on Vieques, the Congressional Research Service has reported to Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-NY).

In 2001, the federal government gave the municipality of Vieques and the Puerto Rico Conservation Trust almost one-quarter of the island that had been a Navy storage area. In 2003, the Navy training range that occupied 40% of the island became an Interior Department wildlife preserve and wilderness area.

The Navy facilities were closed in response to Puerto Rican requests due to a 2000 agreement between then President Clinton, then Puerto Rico Governor Pedro Rossello (statehood/D), and U.S. military officials. The agreement provided for the grant of the storage area. It also proposed that 75% of the training range be made available for Puerto Rican or other non-federal use. But Congress kept the land in federal ownership through a 2001 law when then Governor Calderon broke Puerto Rican commitments under the 2000 agreement and Calderon and then Resident Commissioner in the States (and now Governor) Acevedo lobbied for closure of the range in 2001 instead of 2003.

The report noted that the spending to date has focused on determining the extent of clean-up needs. It said that almost $18 million was spent through last September 30th.

It also pointed out that the clean-up costs would be greater if the range land had been made available for non-federal use, such as housing or tourist facilities. Non-federal use would require a more intensive cleaning of the land than is required for wildlife reserves - - in which public access can be restricted -- or wilderness areas -- in which public access is prohibited.

The report explained that clean-up standards are based on the extent of the threat of a site to human health and that "numerous" federal studies have found no significant health risks from contamination due to Navy activities on Vieques. Calderon, in particular, claimed that Navy target practice caused cancer, heart disease, and other ailments among Vieques’ civilian population.

An additional point made by the report is that including the land on the list of the nation’s most hazardous waste sites -- so-called Superfund designation --"does not affect the stringency of the cleanup required or increase the availability of funding." Calderon and Acevedo worked to have the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) designate the land as a Superfund site claiming that designation would result in greater cleaning.

Despite the substantial amount of money being spent on cleaning the former Navy facilities, PRFAA Director Bhatia recently complained to EPA about the clean-up effort. The Acevedo aide wrote objecting to the detonation of explosives found on the training range and questioning the EPA’s evaluation of the former Navy land’s pollution.

The "Washington Update" appears weekly.

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